Saturday, May 10, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

Our May book club choice, along with a version of "Atomic Cake"

Denise Kiernan's "untold story of the women who helped win WWII" was an obvious read for our book club. We're just 20 minutes from Oak Ridge, Tennessee and have all visited it many times, from the Secret City Festival to the amazing American Museum of Science and Energy, the fantastic Children's Museum of Oak Ridge, the Secret City Excursion Train, and the Oak Ridge Playhouse.

Anywhere you go in Oak Ridge, you come across its history. It's not a secret any longer.

Kiernan's book, though, tells of the days when Oak Ridge was a giant secret kept by thousands of people— 75,000 people who didn't even know what they were doing in Oak Ridge. It is a fascinating story. How do you keep thousands of people from knowing that they are creating an atomic bomb?

Kiernan focuses on a half dozen or so women who worked in Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. She tells their stories: how and why they came to Oak Ridge, what they did at the jobs, how they reacted to the news of the bombs dropping on Japan—and realizing that this was what they had been creating.

Interspersed with stories of these women are chapters about the science of atomic energy. I must admit that I skimmed these sections, but for those who are more science-oriented, I think these would be fabulous.

We had fantastic discussions in our book club about the book using the discussion guide provided at the end of the book.  We spent the vast majority of our time talking about the first three questions. The first addressed how the format of the book is compartmentalized, as were the lives and work of people during the Manhattan Project.

The second question focused on the losses of land and community when Oak Ridge was built and the government just took over land that had been in families for generations. We spent a lot of time talking about this, as this is a common theme here in East Tennessee, with Oak Ridge, the TVA projects, and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park—all government programs that forced families off their land for little compensation.

From there, we discussed the second part of that question: do the ends of the Project justify the means? We had no answers for that, of course. Two of us have fathers who fought in WWII, and we talked about that and about the Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S.

Ultimately, we moved on only to the third question: "Discuss the role that patriotism played in everyday life during World War II. Do you think Americans today would be willing or able to make the same sacrifices – including top-secret jobs, deployment overseas, rationed goods, and strict censorship – that families of that era made? Why or why not?" And wow. We never made it out of that question.

I had to kick everyone out earlier than usual because my oldest son was graduating from college the next day, but I am sure we could have spent a few more hours discussing this book! This is a fascinating book no matter where you live; but if you live within a few hours of Oak Ridge and haven't visited it, I highly recommend both reading the book and visiting Oak Ridge.


Carin Siegfried said...

I loved this book! Especially how these high school educated farm girls did such a better and faster job of separating the isotopes than the male Ph.D.s who developed the techniques.

Literary Feline said...

I saw mention of this book recently and wondered if it was any good. The subject matter interests me very much. I love anything having to do with WWII, and throw in women's roles, and it's a must read.

It sounds like you had a great discussion with your book club. I will definitely have to look for this one.